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Game Preview: Nuggets Four Quarters From First Playoff Berth Since 2013
MINNEAPOLIS – It wasn’t very long in the course of the last week that Will Barton basically stopped scoreboard-watching altogether. His team, the Nuggets, were getting no outside help in their quest to make the playoffs.
“I didn’t even look at the scores anymore,” Barton said.
He knew, just as his teammates did, that if they were to get to the playoffs they could only depend on themselves. Six straight wins later, they stand 48 minutes away from their first playoff berth in five years.
And what a way to have to qualify. A winner-take-all game in Minnesota against the Timberwolves. The winning team gets into the Western Conference playoffs. The losing team will ponder what might have been. Both teams enter the game with identical 46-35 records.
Only twice in the current playoff format – since 1983-84 – has there been a scenario where the winning team of a matchup goes to the playoffs, while the losing team is eliminated. The Nuggets, incidentally, were involved in one of the other two, back in 1995. Their 102-89 win over the Sacramento Kings put them in the playoffs and sent Sacramento home for the summer.
Tonight’s opponent is a familiar one. Both play in the NBA’s most competitive division, the Northwest. It has been a struggle for the Timberwolves since March 1. They’re 8-9 since then, but most of those games were played without their star, Jimmy Butler, who missed 17 straight games from Feb. 24-April 5 due to injury.
Butler was available to play for the Wolves in their game at Denver on April 5, but he did not get in the game. Minnesota has won the two games since then, and he’s been on the court for both.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, are looking to extend what has been a magical run to this point. A season-high six straight wins, all against some of the top competition in the NBA.
“Everyone is all on one page,” Barton said. “Everyone wants to win.”
So how do the Nuggets give themselves their best chance to win and advance to the playoffs? Start with these things…
Keep Taj Gibson’s impact low: There is question as to whether Taj Gibson, Minnesota’s starting power forward, will even play in this game due to a neck injury. But if he does, the Nuggets have to match his energy and keep him boxed out. Gibson is averaging 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds against the Nuggets this season. He’s getting 12.7 of those points in the paint, and 3.3 from second-chance points. He is an incredibly active player, and if he gets to 20 points or more – which he did against the Nuggets on Dec. 27 – Minnesota is 5-0 this season. They are 6-0 if he scores 19 or more. His production is impactful, and it will fall upon Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap to be the main players to keep Gibson’s effectiveness level low.
Get the game to the fourth quarter: In the Dec. 27 game in Minneapolis, the Nuggets got behind big early, 21-9, and had to dig out of that hole the remainder of the game. They were able to, getting the contest to overtime before losing, but that is not a position they want to be in today. The crowd will be loud. The atmosphere will feel like a playoff game, and the momentum a home team can get from that could be very damaging. So, get an early lead. Or if the Nuggets fall behind, make sure they’re always in contact. Get the game to the fourth quarter, where they’ve been brilliant during this winning streak, and make the plays necessary to win.
Get Jokic into a rhythm: In the last game against Minnesota – on April 5 – Nikola Jokic had a critical tip-in late in the fourth quarter that helped the Nuggets win, but overall he found shot-making tough. He was 6-of-20 from the field that night. A lot of what happened was Jokic missing a lot of shots he normally makes, so generating good looks wasn’t a big issue. Still, look for the Nuggets to get him going early with a couple of high-percentage attempts in the first two or three possessions. When Jokic’s scoring is a factor early on, his wizardry through playmaking can take over from there.
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter